Monday, May 2, 2011

'Race To Nowhere' - the problem is students have to memorize too many facts

The Wall Street Journal reports that Race to Nowhere has been playing in New Jersey and other places.  It was was recently screened in Tuckahoe and other locales in Westchester County, but I have not seen it.
The film suggests that if there are problems in American education, they are largely due to standardized tests, overambitious parents, insufficient funding, and George W. Bush. It also offers possible solutions, which include abandoning testing and grading and giving teachers more autonomy....
The movie's recurring theme is that American kids are under intense pressure to succeed, forced to complete up to six hours of homework each night and therefore increasingly driven to mental illness. The movie is promoted with the tagline, "The Dark Side of America's Achievement Culture." 
The dark side is illuminated with powerful anecdotes—we learn of one young California girl who, we are told, committed suicide after a disappointing grade in math. But the achievement is tougher to spot. The film reports that as hard as kids compete to win acceptance to name-brand colleges, they come out of high school without knowing much. The University of California at Berkeley, we are told, has to provide remedial education for close to half of incoming freshmen before they can handle a college course load. The film notes that American kids score poorly in international tests. If they work so hard, how do they learn so little? 
I don't see these as the serious problems confronting American education today.  On the other hand, I do see the excessive emphasis on trying to teach "critical thinking skills" that detracts from time needed to provide students with a strong "base of knowledge" as a factor in holding down student achievement levels.
Ms. Abeles argues that U.S. education is focused too much on giving kids "things to memorize and regurgitate," instead of developing the critical thinking skills that will be most useful in solving problems and thriving later in life. 
Jeanne Allen, who leads the Center for Education Reform in Washington, reports that her sister back in Bergen County is one of those Jersey parents receiving a blizzard of email pitches to see the movie. Ms. Allen says that if U.S. tests are flawed it is because they demand that kids memorize too few facts, not too many. "You can't teach critical thinking," she says. She argues that kids cannot possibly develop problem-solving skills without a base of knowledge. How can one analyze a piece of literature, she asks, without knowing any vocabulary? Can students solve math problems without being able to multiply and divide?


  1. I'm seeing the same sort of argument being made by Tony Wagner in the dreadful book I'm reading by him. Anything involving direct instruction is to be avoided. Somehow the education institutions have decided that everything students do must involve little knowledge of anything and lots of time figuring out how to do simple tasks with little instruction.

  2. If I were an ambitious student nowadays, I would probably be stressed too if my classes consisted of time-wasting exercises in constructing knowledge while I had to spend hours of my own time actually learning stuff!